Beliefs Culture Following Francis Institutions

How Catholic are US Catholics? It’s all in how you measure

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Congregants pray during Catholic Mass at St. Therese Little Flower Parish in Kansas City, Mo., on May 20, 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow
Congregants pray during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Congregants pray during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) More than 81 million U.S. adults identify themselves as Catholic.

But how they live that identity — how they connect to the church beyond celebrating the popular Pope Francis — adds up very differently.

The overall Catholic count plunges to 68.1 million in the 2015 Official Catholic Directory. It tallies up reports from the nation’s parishes of adults — and children — who have attended worship, received sacraments, joined a youth group or donated money.

The numbers and rate of participation in church life slide even further when researchers look at how adults report their Catholic life in action — or rather, inaction.

Only about 1 in 3 adult Catholics (31.4 percent), chiefly older women, attend Mass in any given week, according to a survey of 1,007 self-identified Catholics by the Catholic research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The same 2008 CARA study, “Sacraments Today,” shows participation in the faith’s seven sacraments, such as baptism, Communion and confirmation, has been dropping steadily with each succeeding generation.

The most recent Official Catholic Directory reports, based on the full 2014 calendar year, show:

  • Infant baptisms (a number affected by the birth rate and immigration) fell to 693,914 from 981,944 in 1995, and 1.3 million 50 years ago.
  • Confirmations (first measured in 1990) are down to 566,143 from a peak of 630,465 in 2000.
  • First Communions are down to 726,887 from 849,919 when these were first tracked in 1990.
  • Marriages in the church fell to 148,134, from a peak of 426,309 in 1970.

READ: Catholic families: strong on prayer, weak on sacraments

Add one more potentially alarming statistic. A 2015 study of Catholic family life found that 68 percent of Catholics with children under age 18 have sent them for no religious education whatsoever — not even a parish youth group.

Holy Cross Family Ministries, the organization behind the famous slogan “The family that prays together stays together,” commissioned the research in advance of Pope Francis’ September visit to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the Vatican’s October meeting to conclude the church’s Synod of Bishops on the Family.

The study found that 1 in 3 parents did not find it very important that their children celebrate their First Communion. One in 4 didn’t consider it very important that they be confirmed.

These are red flags for the future, said Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA and co-author of the report.  “If you don’t have First Communion and you’re not confirmed, you are more likely to leave the faith as an adult. You can’t take Communion or really practice your faith.”

But you can still have a strong and true Catholic identity, said CARA senior researcher Mary Gautier.

“The core things about what it means to have Catholic identity have not changed across generations,” said Gautier.

A Pew Research Center survey released Sept. 2 backs this up. It asked 1,016 self-identified U.S. adult Catholics about what is “essential” to their personal sense of “being Catholic.”

READ: Catholic to Catholic-ish: 45 percent in US feel connected to the faith

The answers reveal that for most Americans, Catholic identity is rooted more in how they live and believe than in whether they check off the boxes for official Catholic measures:

  • 68 percent cited “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as essential.
  • 67 percent: Belief in Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead.
  • 62 percent: Working to help the poor and needy.
  • 54 percent: Devotion to Mary as the virgin Mother of God.
  • 54 percent: Receiving the sacraments.
  • 42 percent: Being part of a Catholic parish.
  • 41 percent: Being open to having children.
  • 34 percent: Celebrating feast days or festivals that are part of your national or ethnic heritage.
  • 33 percent: Opposing abortion.
  • 29 percent: Working to address climate change.

The survey, conducted May 5 to June 7, 2015, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Wrap in many more who consider these beliefs and actions “important but not essential” and the survey shows that 2 in 3 Catholics take every one of those markers seriously.

Pew also found that 9 percent of Americans consider themselves ex-Catholics — but Gautier would claim those people as Catholic too.

Not only do many still hold those Catholic beliefs and practices, said Gautier, but going by church law, “canonically, being baptized Catholic makes you Catholic whether or not you ever attend Mass again. Period.”

That might include George Herrera, 23, of Phoenix, a recent college graduate in communications. In the Pew survey, he identified himself as an ex-Catholic.

And he’s so disconnected that as of three weeks ago, he was unaware that Pope Francis was bound for the United States.

But in an interview, he said: “I don’t think of myself so much as ex-Catholic but just as having no religion. I believe in God, I just don’t feel the need to go to church.”

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

(This story is part of a series on the papal visit produced in collaboration with USA Today.)


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • 81 million Catholics in the USA and most if not all suffer from being Bred, Born and Brainwashed in the their “sometimes” religion. But times are changing as the Internet continues to bring reality and quick cures to the Catholic “pew pe-asant”. Give it another 50 years and the decline in Catholic population will be so great that few parishes will remain.

  • As a practicing Catholic, it is hard for me to say that most Catholics in the US see their Catholicity as akin to them being Irish, German, or Italian. Similar to the Jews today, Catholics view their religion as their cultural make up and not a Faith to listen to and learn from. Its apparent in the ignorance of Catholics who agree with abortion, gay marriage, contraception, etc., but will swear they are good Catholics.
    Each generation becomes more ignorant of the Faith then the previous one, not intentionally, but more out of laziness. This decline, I believe, had its beginning with Vatican II. Though the Council was uplifting, it’s meaning was distorted to Parishes all over the world. Many churches took on a Protestant veneer, with Catholic practices, devotions, and music tossed aside mistakenly. Of course, the social chaos of the 1960’s contributed to the general rebellion against all authority, even the Church.

  • We’re on the threshold of a huge spiritual awakening. It’s going to get interesting. Next month (Oct.) Pope Francis is expected to rule on the authenticity of Medjugorje. There, prophetic messages tell of future events that prove “God exists!” Time will tell – but the current apostasy is a sign of the times.

  • Being Catholic for me is my identity as a person. But to be Catholic, one needs to be Baptized & Confirmed in the Catholic Church. And I’d say this much, once a person discovers how God communicates his grace through the Sacraments of the Church, then he/she would be running for the Eucharist, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick whenever those moments avail themselves. As for those who don’t go to Mass weekly, well, that is their business, I guess, but they only are fulfilling the words of our Lord, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8. Let us never stand before the Lord at each of our Judgments, and have him repeat those words to us. We become a self fulfilling prophecy. No, our Lord should be our best friend during our walk on this earth.

  • Why do religious bigots always seem to blame everything they hate on modern society on the 60s and 70s? What is with you kooks and your obsession with that time period?

  • I believe Medjugore will be denounced by Rome as a site unworthy of belief. All indicators seem to point to fraud or delusion on the events happening there.

  • People have been saying “sign of the times…” since the dawn of man. Never get it right.

    The Catholic church is just a front for the mob. “God” lives in Sicily and pulls a lot of strings in the Vatican.

  • The authenticity of medjugorje!

    IT’S TRUE!!!! Says the one true catholic.

    IT’S A LIE OF SATAN!!!! says the Other true Catholic.

  • The Church has the final say on any miraculous occurrence. Even if the vision is approved, Catholics have no demand to believe it, since the event is considered private revelation.

  • One need not be baptized in the Catholic church, given that the church recognizes almost all Protestant baptisms as “valid.” As we used to say, you’re baptized Christian and confirmed Catholic.

  • Have you visited Medugorje? If not, beware of negative, strong commenting. You could be very wrong, you know. The millions who believe and go there, many yearly, have a different story to tell.

  • “God” lives in Sicily”?? The first I heard of it! “He” doesn’t pull Pope Francis’ strings as Francis has shown many times. “The Catholic Church is just a front for the Mob???” Yawn! No human institution is free from weaknesses, flaws, and wrong-doing, but the majority is doing its best to spread the Gospel of Jesus. You want perfection?? Not possible when humans are involved.

  • Yes, definitely, the Beloved Man from Nazareth should be the Best Friend and Teacher of all Christians.

  • Greg1, you’ve given up your identity, humanity, and independence to an awful myth about a murderous, vengeful, and bigoted “god”, and that’s simply shameful.

    The whole Jesus story that you keep trying to promote here is nonsense. How is it again that your omnipotent being couldn’t do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus’ death a “sacrifice”, when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Not only that, but an omnipotent “god” would have known that Jesus wouldn’t really stay dead. That is no sacrifice at all.

    Furthermore, 2000+ years without a peep from the fairy of your god myths, and with no verifiable evidence for its existence is more than sufficient grounds for doubt, to say the least. Pretty pathetic “god” that you’ve made there.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
    Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.